Earlier this month, 35 writers, activists, journalists and other members of civil society wrote a public letter to the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ) in Chennai, urging it to conduct a probe into an allegation of sexual harassment against the culture critic Sadanand Menon, who is a member of the ACJ’s adjunct faculty. The signatories published the letter after the college’s Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) refused to institute an inquiry into a complaint that a former student of the institute had filed in January 2018. In the complaint, the former student alleged that Menon had sexually harassed her at SPACES, a prominent cultural venue in Chennai of which Menon is the managing trustee. The student also described her ordeal in an account published on the website the News Minute earlier that month.
In the public letter—which was widely shared and subsequently signed by 150 others—the signatories confirmed that the complainant was referring to Menon in her News Minute piece. They wrote that they had become aware of several other alleged cases of sexual harassment by Menon, including those involving members of the LGBTQI community, and a minor. On 9 May, the ACJ released a statement announcing that Menon had decided to not teach his elective course in the coming academic year, and that he was “considering legal action against those who have published false and defamatory allegations against him.”
The Caravan contacted various persons involved with the issue, and is publishing their responses as a series. Surabhi Kanga, an editor at The Caravan, spoke to Sashi Kumar, the chairperson of the ACJ. Kumar discussed the ACJ’s decision to not conduct an inquiry into the complaint against Menon and the conversations that took hold of the college after the complaint was filed. He also responds to allegations raised in another public letter written by students from the 2017–18 graduating class of the ACJ, in which they condemn the ICC’s decision and detail the difficulties they faced when interacting with the administration on the subject.
Surabhi Kanga: In late 2017, Sadanand Menon was named in a crowd-sourced list prepared by the lawyer Raya Sarkar, of men in academia who had allegedly sexually harassed women. The list was widely shared. Was the ACJ aware of the list, and was there a discussion regarding it within the institute and its administration?
Sashi Kumar: There was no discussion about Raya’s list in the institute or the administration. We, as a principle, don’t take on board anonymous complaints made about somebody pertaining to the college.
Kanga: In a letter published recently on Medium, students of the ACJ have written that, at the time the list was published, Menon had “derided the list” during a class. They further write that he narrated an incident with a former student, and speculated that no other incident could have led to the inclusion of his name on the list. According to the letter, he described the incident as “a misunderstanding arising out of different values of sexual freedom.” Was the administration aware that Menon had addressed these allegations in the classroom?
Kumar: I’m not aware of the details, as this was a classroom where he and the students were present. But as I understand it, Sadanand Menon spoke about the incident that is the subject of what the former student of ours had written about [for the News Minute] and explained the context of what had happened there. As far as I know the students were relieved that he spoke to them. I understand that many of the students went up to him after that and told him they were glad that he spoke about it so openly. This is the essence of what was communicated to me about what happened that day in that class. But beyond that, I do not know what was his motivation to [address the list]. This is not something that should come to a college officially or something that he told us officially—it was a part of his class, something between him and his students that happened at that point of time.
Kanga: When did the ACJ first become aware of any allegations of sexual harassment against Menon?
Kumar: I would say it must be the News Minute article, which I hadn’t read until much later myself.
Kanga: Though the former student has not named Menon in the News Minute article, it has been reported that she filed a formal complaint with the ACJ later that same month. Is that accurate? Would you be able to describe the nature of the complaint?
Kumar: Yes, it was January 2018. The ACJ responded to her and the nature of the complaint was probably referring to the article [that the complainant wrote on News Minute] and mentioning that the person concerned is Sadanand Menon—I am speaking from memory, but I believe that was the nature of the complaint. Some of this correspondence was to the ICC—so I don’t know what exactly happened, although I would know the outcome. I was informed by the ICC that this is not in their jurisdiction so they cannot look at it.
I know that she wrote a letter to me recently—three or four days before the convocation [which took place on 3 May]—in which she said that the ICC has taken such a position [and not acted upon the complaint], and so she’s making a last appeal to me on moral, extra-legal grounds. I think it was time-barred and out of their jurisdiction, it was not within its scope to do anything—which is correct as far as I can see. I wrote back to her saying that while I’m aware of the case, I am not able to go into the merits of it because the ICC is the one that does that, and I have faith in the integrity and probity of the ICC, and it will look at the issue as it has to be looked at—words to that effect. That is the only direct correspondence I’ve had with her.
Kanga: When were you made aware of the complaint to the ICC?
Kumar: It was somewhere in January. I am not a part of monitoring ICC daily. Why should I put my head to all that? As the head of the institution I would know the outcomes. So they’ll say this case that was referred, we [the ICC] are not able to consider it because there is no jurisdiction. [They said that] the time bar is not an issue, but, in the entire jurisdiction of the process, this is harassment in another workplace and the forum for that is to go to the women’s commission and the courts of law.
It struck me that this is true—why are they bringing this to the ACJ’s ICC? Even if the harassment has happened [outside], she certainly deserves the rights to justice, but the ACJ’s ICC is not the forum because we don’t have the wherewithal, the expertise to judge legal cases of that kind.
Kanga: Could you tell me when the ICC responded to her?
Kumar: I wouldn’t know that.
Kanga: In the Medium letter, the students alleged that the ICC was dormant when the complaint was filed and that one of its members at the time was not aware that she was a part of the committee.
Kumar: I think that’s an exaggeration. It is probably true that they were still working along the Vishakha guidelines—but it was there on the website, so you can’t say it was not there. The member [being referred to] was spoken to about being a member of the committee, but after that there we no meetings of the committee because apparently after that there was no case [to discuss]. That might have been what they describe as “dormant.” It is not that it was a suppressed committee and they have not been acting deliberately.
When this was brought to our notice, it was also brought to our notice that we need to align it to the new norms about sexual harassment at the workplace. That was done.
Kanga: It has been reported that after the News Minute piece was published, various persons in Chennai, including the complainant and students of the ACJ, came to know of other allegations against Menon. The students who wrote the Medium letter claimed that they had informed the administration of these allegations.
Kumar: That is a misrepresentation of facts. The students wanted an open-forum meeting to discuss the [membership] of the ICC and wanted to give suggestions to improve it. In that meeting, I think there were the 10–12 students who are the ones who asked for this, and there were other 80–85 [others], and faculty members. They started by talking about the improvements, presentation, et cetera of the ICC.
I don’t want to name the students concerned, but [during the meeting,] one student started hurling defamatory statements about Sadanand Menon relating to this alleged harassment or relationships with various outsiders, none of whom is a student. Basically hurling allegations in order, obviously, to establish that he is, what they’ve been calling, a sexual predator. The faculty there was shocked. First of all, in all good faith this forum had been made available to discuss recommendations on the ICC. There were defamatory statements being made about a professor—it was an open forum, it wasn’t a closed, confidential ICC meeting. I think some of the faculty members threatened to walk out—they said, “we can’t just sit here with somebody just letting loose wild allegations.” The faculty kept telling them, “These are very shocking things you are saying but can you give us a name, a person who can provide us with a first person account? Have any of you actually spoken to somebody?” They [the students] did not give a name, they said it was anonymous. An anonymous kind of targeting of a professor, either intentionally or unwittingly, the effect is the same—it’s defamatory. The meeting, I think, came to an abrupt, unhappy and kind of polarised [end]. It struck me as not only unethical and unfair, but also terrible for a handful of students [to have done this]—whatever their reasons, whether they were misinformed or misguided.
Kanga: Were you in attendance at the meeting?
Kumar: No. The faculty came down to me after that and asked to meet with me to state what had happened there because it would have an impact on the institute—defamatory statements were being made at an open meeting. Twelve or thirteen members of the faculty were there. What I am telling you is what they told me.
Kanga: The faculty members asked the students if they knew anybody who had experienced this?
Kumar: Yes, they did. The students said that we are going to send you in writing the names of those people. I said yes, of course, if they send it in writing, it should be taken up or the ICC should take it up. [It will] probably have to summon Sadanand Menon and the others to probe [the complaint.] But they did not—they wrote a letter without any of the proof that they claimed they had. That was even worse—it became a criminal meeting because of the nature of the allegations without any proof.
The nature of these things that come out—[allegation of harassment of] LGBT or minor person—we’re really concerned if these are true, but you must be able to provide some vestige of who it is and what it is. Even if you have an ICC meeting in confidence, how would they investigate it? That is the nature of that whole problem.
Kanga: Were the ICC members concerned about what action they would take if the allegations were true or if proof was furnished? When it comes to a person from the LGBTQI community, or when a minor is involved, the question of coming out and naming becomes rather tricky. Did they have a response to these constraints?
Kumar: How do you handle it then? How do you go about it, I don’t know. I’m not able to speak for them. See, these are not naive villagers. These are all people who are active in social life and do you think they don’t have the guts to come and tell what happened to them? Until that happens, I cannot but conclude that this is a hoax, or someone is engineering this. I find it very implausible that all these are very vulnerable and naïve people who will not speak. The LGBT community is very strong, why can’t they articulate?
Kanga: In the Medium letter, the ACJ students had suggested measures to improve the functioning of the ICC, including adopting Ambedkar University’s policy of allowing a third party to make a complaint.
Kumar: I’m not sure because I think the students are claiming all kinds of things happening at Ambedkar University—they said there was a case considered against [a professor] purely based on complaints from outside. When we checked, we found out that is not so, there were complaints referred by students in the current batch and therefore the case came on board. Despite that, the professor [in question] had stepped down from a particular position, but not from teaching per se. It is a misrepresentation by a small group of students. I don’t think that they’re doing it willfully. They are just trying whatever is possible and they’re factually wrong, and I think this was pointed out to them [by the ICC].
We have no problem adopting those practices provided we know it is practical enough in our context. Ambedkar University has a post-graduate and undergraduate course. The ACJ is a ten-month course, so it must be a practice that is viable in our context. Before we start the next academic year, there is a review of our curriculum, our practices. The ICC will be one of the things that will be discussed, and many of these suggestions can be incorporated. Why would one not make it as efficient and democratic and inclusive as possible?
Kanga: The students also made another allegation—that the ICC was being influenced by the ACJ administration, in which they have named you as well. How do you respond?
Kumar: I’ve already responded on Twitter to [one of the authors of the letter], and he’s also responded back to me for a clarification. I’m not privy to the proceedings of the ICC, and I do not interfere with it. I even think, why should I put my head on the block, without knowing what’s happening? And it’s an insult to the integrity of the members of the ICC, of a lawyer of the stature of Geetha Ramaseshan, or professional journalists like Ramya Kannan to say that they are going to dance to my tunes.
Kanga: Various observers have said that the ACJ has a moral responsibility to take on the complaint.
Kumar: It is a problem. We only go by the law and not beyond that. The Raya Sarkar example is not something we can replicate here. We cannot have an extra-legal approach to this because we will probably get into trouble because of that. It’s very easy to say that this means that we’ll only strictly go by the law—that’s not what we’re saying. We’ll go by the letter and the spirit of the law. But can we go beyond the law? No.
Kanga: The students have also said that there were informal complaints against Menon in 2011.
Kumar: No informal or formal complaints were made against Mr Menon ever in the time he’s been teaching in the college, which is why we cannot take this lightly. If it was a relative newcomer, there would be benefit of doubt. Here, unless there is proof—we must believe the man is innocent unless proven guilty.
Kanga: You have said that you felt the ACJ was being attacked for “being a liberal campus.”
Kumar: I think because of the liberal nature of the campus, this is indicative of the times that you can’t have a liberal campus. What is the lesson of this as far as the faculty is concerned? They’re going to be very worried about the way they relate to students; they’re going to be very formal. Some of them might be talking about having boy students and girl students not staying in the same campus. So this is the way you convert a liberal campus into an illiberal campus. Who were the people who were touting that agenda? I tend to wonder whether there is a larger conspiracy—although it sounds funny to me when I say it.
Kanga: In this particular moment, there are various ongoing conversations regarding sexual harassment—including on the difficulty of speaking up and the complex nature of anonymity. Does this figure in the ACJ’s considerations of its ICC and how it plans to tackle sexual harassment on campus?
Kumar: It figures very prominently. None of the students who were raising these issues realise that there are at least four or five such situations that were handled by the college, and the students concerned know about it. These were resolved with a bias for the women. That’s the purpose of this whole thing. You should have evidences, if you give evidences, we will certainly throw him out.
The real issue of an immediate nature is how can you run an entire investigation based on pure anonymity? I just don’t understand, howsoever I look at it. I even consulted some women friends—even they are not able to understand.
Kanga: How does the difficulty of speaking up come into the picture in the case of the allegations raised against Menon? After all, the ICC is asking people to come forward. How does the ACJ reconcile this?
Kumar: Who did the speaking out? What they did was unethical—to make allegations about a professor in an open meeting. This was something that the concerned person or a complainant with actual proof would go to the ICC, and in confidence, submit it to the ICC, which would then take a view on whether that needs to be investigated. Was that done? Did they try that first before the open meeting? They just called an open meeting and say that you take action. What is this? This is really a lynch-mob mentality—whether of the right or of the pseudo-liberal variety, it has the same consequences. A lynch mob is a lynch mob. This is not a formal ICC request. We’re not going to succumb to that.
Kanga: The question of consensual romantic or sexual relationships, between professors and students has become an important one in the current climate. Does the ACJ have a stance on this?
Kumar: ACJ will certainly frown upon and not allow a sexual relationship between a professor and student. If it comes to our knowledge, we’ll ask the professor to step down and we’ll ask student also to leave. There is an implicit power relationship. Although it might be seen as voluntary but the student may not be in a position to know—they may be in awe of somebody because this is a professor. We’ll see it as implicit exercise of power, even if the relationship may be termed a gray or consensual romantic relationship. This may not be an entirely liberal position, but we would frown upon that.
This interview has been edited and condensed. It has been published as part of a series regarding the allegations of sexual harassment against Sadanand Menon. Other pieces in the series include a statement by Menon, an essay by the writer and publisher V Geetha on why she chose to sign the letter asking for a probe into the allegations, and an interview with two signatories to the public letter written by the writers and activists.
Surabhi Kanga is an assistant editor at The Caravan.